The Final Battle: Breaking down Super GT’s title contenders

motegi 2015 preview

The 2015 Autobacs Super GT Series season will come to a close on Sunday (or late, late Saturday evening) – and yet again, we’re going to have a thrilling race for the GT500 crown with six teams and their twelve drivers still mathematically eligible for the championship going into this final 250 kilometer race at Twin Ring Motegi.

The GT300 title has already been decided in favor of International veteran racer Andre Couto, who won the Drivers’ Championship for GAINER at Autopolis. It was an emotional scene after the race, after Couto, a veteran of eleven seasons in GT500 and now two seasons in GT300 competition, dedicated the championship to his team, who won a Drivers’ Championship for the first time in over a decade of racing, his 2015 co-drivers Katsumasa Chiyo (who really should be considered for Driver of the Year honors in any credible sports car racing publication) and Ryuichiro Tomita (who will almost surely be in the frame for a full-time GT300 drive next year), and then to his late son Afonso, who died of childhood leukemia in November of 2010 at the age of seven.

Couto and Chiyo won’t have to push too hard when they race at Motegi with the championships already decided, however, if they drive the Tanax GT-R to a podium finish, Couto will be the first GT300 driver to amass 100 points in a season since Keiichi Suzuki and the late Shingo Tachi in their historic 1998 season, where they won an astonishing five of six races driving a Toyota MR2 jointly fielded by Team Taisan and Tsuchiya Engineering (now Team Samurai).

championship table 2015

The GT500 championship, however, is far from decided, with six teams still mathematically eligible as the above table demonstrates. Realistically, it will likely be a two-horse race between the Calsonic Nissan GT-R of IMPUL and the Motul Nissan GT-R of defending champions NISMO, with three of the other four teams absolutely needing to win to have any chance of winning the championship. But as last year proved, an early mishap can potentially blow the whole thing wide open. So what’s at stake for the championship contenders in Motegi?

CALSONIC GT-R – HIRONOBU YASUDA & J.P. OLIVEIRA

calsonic gtr 2015

Current standing: 1st place (66 points, 1 pole position, 4 podiums)

At stake: IMPUL are seeking their first GT500 championship since 1995. Hironobu Yasuda and J.P. Oliveira are each seeking their very first GT500 championships, with would make Yasuda only the second driver to win a championship in both Super GT classes, and Oliveira would become the first Brazilian Super GT champion.

Season so far: Oliveira’s ruthless aggression, his signature trait as a driver in both Super GT and Super Formula, may have cost the Impul team a shot at a title last season when he clashed with James Rossiter on the very first lap of the race. This year, Yasuda and Oliveira have led the championship for much of this season, yet are still winless in 2015. They finished second in both of Nissan’s 1-2 finishes this year – the first at the Fuji 500km in May, the second two weeks ago in Autopolis, where despite winning the pole position, they could not resist a late race charge from the Motul GT-R who won in Autopolis for the second year in a row.

Apart from Sugo, where their race was compromised by a 30 second penalty for colliding with the B-Max GT-R in the lower division, the Calsonic GT-R has been extremely consistent on form – finishing on the podium four times, including at Suzuka despite holding a maximum 100kg ballast handicap during the 1000km race. But this has also been a very bittersweet year of success for Impul; just days after their second-place finish at Fuji in May, Impul CEO and co-founder Yutaka Kaneko passed away at the age of 72. His role within the organization was instrumental not only in helping IMPUL become one of the top racing teams and automotive garages in Japan, but in kickstarting the careers of several legendary drivers such as Benoit Treluyer, now a three-time Le Mans 24 Hours champion.

Key Stat: The Calsonic GT-R has never won at Motegi, and drivers Oliveira and Yasuda have not finished better than 5th and 7th respectively at Motegi in Super GT, but Oliveira is one of Motegi’s most successful drivers in Super Formula – the Brazilian has four victories, eight podiums, and four pole positions at Motegi in fifteen career Super Formula races at Motegi. He finished third in this year’s race in August.

MOTUL GT-R – TSUGIO MATSUDA & RONNIE QUINTARELLI

01

Current Standing: 2nd place (64 points, 2 wins, 2 pole positions)

At stake: A lot of history is at stake for NISMO, who seek to extend their record of success with an eighth championship, and for driver Ronnie Quintarelli, who is one of three drivers who can become the first four-time Super GT GT500 champion in history by the end of the race on Sunday. If they clinch the title with a race victory, Tsugio Matsuda would not only win his second GT500 championship, but also move to the top of the all-time career wins list at 17 race wins.

Season so far: It’s hard to believe that entering last season, NISMO were on a winless streak of over two years. But the defending champions have since returned to their place as the most successful team in Super GT – the benchmark of excellence by which all other squads are measured. It didn’t start so well at Okayama – an early and dramatic brake failure put them out of contention. But they responded with a statement victory in the Fuji 500km, and have yet to finish outside the points since then – 5th in Thailand, 4th in the second Fuji race, 7th and pole position at the Suzuka 1000km even after an early spin almost put them a lap down, and 6th at Sugo, before taking their second win in Autopolis thanks to excellent driving from Quintarelli and Matsuda – even if Matsuda’s “power move” on Yasuda to take the lead in Autopolis didn’t exactly sit well with Oliveira in the Impul garage.

If for any reason a tiebreaker was needed, NISMO’s two victories put them ahead of the pack, but with no other podium finishes to their name, there are scenarios where they can lose the title on a second tiebreaker if any of the three teams in a must-win scenario do the job. Still, it’s extremely hard to foresee that as a realistic possibility – not when NISMO utterly dominated this race a year ago en route to the championship, and with no ballast on the cars and riding a positive wave of momentum, look poised to do it again this Sunday.

Key stat: Tsugio Matsuda is one of Motegi’s most successful drivers in Super GT history – his three wins, including his first career GT500 victory in 2001 driving for Nakajima Racing, are matched only by former Honda ace Sebastian Philippe. Quintarelli has two wins, and an average finish of 3.6, in his last five races at Motegi.

ZENT RC-F – YUJI TACHIKAWA & HIROAKI ISHIURA

zent rcf 2015

Current standing: 3rd place (53 points, 2 pole positions, 3 podiums)

At stake: Driver Yuji Tachikawa has been the lead driver in all three of Lexus Team Cerumo’s three GT300 championships, and seeks to become the first four-time GT500 champion in leading the team to their fourth title. New co-driver Hiroaki Ishiura, already a GT300 champion in 2007, seeks to win his first GT500 title and to become the first driver since Richard Lyons in 2004 to win the Super GT and Super Formula championships in the same year.

Season so far: “Frustrated” should be the word to describe the ZENT team’s season in 2015. With a little better luck, Tachikawa and Ishiura could even be leading the championship. Their season started well enough with a third-place finish in Okayama. But then two straight mechanical DNFs put them well down the order – none more frustrating than in Thailand, where the team took pole position, and were engaged in a heated scrap with the S-Road GT-R before the brakes gave out once Ishiura took the wheel. A similar issue happened again in the July Fuji race, as once again they took pole, Tachikawa dominated the first half at a circuit where he’s won a record seven times (he is to Mount Fuji what Craig Lowndes is to Mount Panorama), and then the pace went away again in the second half of the race – eventually it was Daiki Sasaki who stormed back from out of nowhere to win that race for Kondo Racing. Placing the blame on Ishiura, who last week was crowned as the Super Formula champion, would be a supremely bad take.

Other low points include a perplexing case of brain fade when Tachikawa booted his old co-driver Kohei Hirate into the guardrail at Sugo and incurred a penalty for unsportsmanlike driving (for which the twenty-year veteran promptly apologized), but they’re still in championship contention because of a four-race string of points finishes, including three top-fives. They’re the leading challenger for Lexus at Motegi, the manufacturer that now holds the unofficial lap record around Motegi in a GT500 car. Tachikawa is the series’ all time leader in pole positions, and another blistering lap on Saturday might finally parlay into a win on Sunday –  they’ll need it to stand a chance of winning the title.

Key stat: Yuji Tachikawa has had three different champion co-drivers – Hironori Takeuchi in 2001, F1 and IndyCar veteran Toranosuke Takagi in 2005, and Hirate in 2013 – Hiroaki Ishiura would be the fourth co-driver he’s won a title with. Speaking of, Ishiura, who won the Super Formula round in Motegi this August, has finished in the points in every race as a GT500 driver at Motegi – a streak of seven races.

S-ROAD GT-R – SATOSHI MOTOYAMA & MASATAKA YANAGIDA

s road gtr 2015

Current standing: 4th place (50 points, 1 win (Thailand), 1 pole position, 2 podiums)

At stake: MOLA are searching for their third championship in just five years of competing in GT500. Satoshi Motoyama looks to end his frustrating search for an elusive and historic fourth championship, while co-driver Masataka Yanagida, who was part of MOLA’s first two GT500 championship efforts, looks to join the elite group of three-time champions in the top division.

Season so far: The union of Motoyama & Yanagida and their combined five championships was supposed to spark a return to form for MOLA after a tough 2013 season. Instead, they failed to capitalize on their pace as awful luck derailed their 2014 season. The “Curse of the DeltaWing” seemed like it would never leave three-time champion Satoshi Motoyama, who hadn’t won a race since the 2011 finale at Motegi, and MOLA, who hadn’t won a race since Autopolis 2012. That changed when they finally won at Thailand, ending an 18-race losing streak for MOLA and Yanagida, and a 26-race losing streak for Motoyama.

They’ve been deceptively consistent all year, with six points finishes from seven rounds and only one mis-step in the July race at Fuji, but have a hard, hard road ahead to the title – they’re sixteen points down on Yasuda and Oliveira in the Calsonic GT-R, but if they somehow manage to win their second race in 2015 at Motegi, they can win the title if they tie either of the two front-runners on points, with more wins than the Calsonic GT-R, and one more second-place finish that the Motul GT-R does not have.

Key stat: As a Super Formula driver, Motoyama won three races and scored nine podiums between 1998 to 2008. But Motoyama has just the one victory in 2011 at Motegi in Super GT, and Yanagida has a GT300 win in 2010, along with a string of five consecutive points finishes here as a GT500 driver.

RAYBRIG NSX – NAOKI YAMAMOTO & TAKUYA IZAWA

raybrig nsx 2015

Current standing: 5th place (49 points, 1 win (Sugo), 2 podiums)

At stake: Team Kunimitsu are the longest-tenured team in GT500 to have never won a championship, and they look to end that drought and secure first drivers’ championships for former Super Formula champion Naoki Yamamoto and co-driver Takuya Izawa. They also seek Honda’s fourth GT500 championship.

Season so far: The reunion of popular driver combination Yamamoto & Izawa was a boon for the Raybrig team. The team struggled throughout the entire 2014 season, not the fault of previous drivers Takashi Kogure and Hideki Mutoh, but the result of a tough year throughout the Honda stable. In their second race together since the end of the 2012 season, they finished second at Okayama. Two DNFs in succession put them back down the order, but then they rallied back to take two fifth-place finishes at Fuji, then at Suzuka as the top Honda team at their primary home track. Then at Sugo, they made a late-race charge past the S-Road GT-R in the second half of the race to take the Raybrig team’s first win since 2013, and the first win for Yamamoto & Izawa, who may be team boss Kunimitsu Takahashi‘s favorite sons, as a driver pairing.

It’s almost unfathomable that a man like Takahashi, who has won countless championships in Japanese domestic competition, a man who took the Honda NSX to Le Mans, won the GT2 class, and then took it back to Japan to start the NSX’s legend in Super GT – the pioneer of drift driving who has the Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift cameo to back it up – has never won a championship as a team owner. They’re up against it big time with a difficult car and a seventeen point deficit to overcome. But Motegi is Honda country, a place where they once won seven straight races, and a place that often produces some magic in favor of the home manufacturer.

Key stat: Yamamoto and Izawa drove the final race of the season together last year, for the now-defunct Dome team, and finished third. Izawa won here in 2009 in his last race for ARTA, and Yamamoto has finished all five of his career starts at Motegi in the points.

PETRONAS RC-F – JAMES ROSSITER & DAISUKE ITO

petronas rcf 2015

Current standing: 6th place (49 points, 1 win (Suzuka 1000km), 2 podiums

At stake: TOM’s can win their fourth GT500 championship, which would add to their Super Formula Teams’ Championship and their All-Japan Formula 3 titles this year. James Rossiter would be the first British GT500 champion since Lyons in ’04, while Daisuke Ito seeks to become only the second driver since Michael Krumm to win mutliple GT500 titles with two manufacturers.

Season so far: Up through their second straight victory in Japan’s Great Race in Suzuka, the 2015 season seemed like a redux of 2014 for the Petronas side of the TOM’s garage. They did pick up a podium in the 500km race in Fuji in May, but weren’t really strong title contenders – until they conquered Suzuka in the drying conditions and vaulted back into the title picture with their signature victory. In winning the 1000km, they became the first team in over a decade to win in consecutive years. And that’s where the similarities to 2014 ended: They exceeded their maximum allotment of race engines following Suzuka, and were forced to serve two major penalties during the next race at Sugo that compromised their race to a level that would make the 50-grid place penalties levied to multiple F1 teams this year seem like a poke on the wrist.

And a fifth place finish in Autopolis wasn’t enough to put them up any higher than a distant sixth. Sure they’re still alive, but barely hanging on. The TOM’s “B-Team” – the KeePer RC-F driven by young Andrea Caldarelli and Ryo Hirakawa could not sustain the momentum of a sensational wet-weather victory in Okayama, and fell out of title contention after Autopolis. Rossiter and Ito will be motivated to atone from last year’s disappointment where the clash with Oliveira on lap one ruined their race, but like the S-Road and Raybrig teams, they must win, and must have help to have any chance at a fourth championship for TOM’s.

Key stat: TOM’s has two victories in Motegi in 1999 and 2010, but Ito’s last win in Motegi came in 2003, and his second-place finish last year in the KeePer RC-F was his only podium finish since then, a string of ten races with seven non-points finishes. Rossiter finished fifth here in 2013, and tenth in 2014, partnered with Kazuki Nakajima.

IF I HAD TO PICK A WINNER

red car vs blue car

Misfortune for either the Calsonic or Motul teams would blow this thing completely open. Assuming that doesn’t happen, however, my heart leans towards the Calsonic team – a somewhat sentimental pick, who are overdue for a breakthrough in Motegi. But the stats and trends all say that the Motul NISMO GT-R is on course for an eighth GT500 championship. For the benefit of the fans watching around the world on NISMO TV this Sunday, we’d hope it’s not a mundane romp to the title for any side – and I don’t expect it to be.

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